When the Jonestown Memorial Fund called to ask if I would offer the dedication prayer for the names that would be placed in stone at Evergreen Cemetery, I was honored that I had even been considered to do such a task. Within my spirit, I realized I could finally do something, not only for my first wife Rhonda and our son, Hue Ishi Fortson, but also for a host of other people whom I had the pleasure of working with some 30 years ago, to give them honor, because they were good people trying to help other people.
A few weeks later, I learned that Dr. Jynona Norwood was planning to take Evergreen and the Jonestown Memorial Fund to court. I knew I had to pray for Dr. Norwood, because there is still a lot of hurt and frustration on her part. I knew in my spirit that all was going to be well for both sides, and that we would not be stopped by this or any other blockage.
I had no idea that the blockage would be of me.
I had everything set up. I would fly into San Francisco International Airport on the Sunday morning of the dedication, rent a car and head over to Oakland. I would offer my prayer, visit some friends from my past, and return to the airport by 5:30 to catch my flight back to Ontario. But when I went to the Avis car rental, my credit card was denied. I went next door to Budget car rental, where the same thing happened. I was frustrated because I had just been paid that weekend and knew I had money on my card.
That’s when I remembered that BART went over to Oakland. I ran down the stairs and waited for a train that said Oakland on the front. When it didn’t come after two trains, I asked a lady on the platform, who took me to a map on the wall. To my surprise – and chagrin – the two trains I had missed would have taken me to Oakland.
When I finally boarded a train, it was already 12:25 PM, and the dedication had started at noon. I couldn’t believe that I could not get myself to the place I needed to be for such an important occasion. I grew angry at myself as I wrote on the fast – yet still slow moving – train.
When the train arrived in Oakland, I asked a couple sitting in front of me how I would get to Evergreen Cemetery. The young man told me that it was not far, and that as a matter of fact, if I got off at the next station, I could walk from there. And if I ran, I added to myself, maybe I would get there in time to share a closing prayer for those that have gone away from us in this life, and those that are still here and living through this.
I followed the young man’s instructions, but after a few blocks, when I had not seen anything that looked like Evergreen, I stopped in a mom-and-pop liquor store and approached a lady in the line to ask where the cemetery might be. Everyone in the store agreed, I had in fact left the train at the wrong stop. One man told me to return to the station and get on the number 31 bus, which would take me downtown, and from there I could get to Evergreen. I rushed out of the store heading back to the station, almost at the point of crying, because I saw the clock ticking the minutes away.
Just before I reached the station again, a car pulled up with the lady I had talked with in the store. She told her that her boyfriend needed to drop her off, but then he would come back and take me directly to Evergreen It meant a delay of another 10 minutes or so, but then, thank God, he did come back and get me. He told me that if I had waited for the bus, I would never have arrived, because it doesn’t run on Sundays.
When we finally arrived at Evergreen, the security guard informed me that the program was over! I felt crushed in my heart, because I thought I had let everyone down – my wife, my son, and everyone who had waited for me. Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that I am better than anyone else, but I had learned something from an older black man who lived in Oakland whom I met when I was a part of the Temple. He had chewed me out for not calling him and letting him know that I was going to be late. “Your word is your bond,” he said. I have never forgotten that. But here I was in a position that I had failed to keep my word.
As I walked towards the hillside, I saw a small gathering of people who still remained. Everyone else was gone. We stopped and talked with one another and gave hugs, but my heart was heavy in that I could not fulfill my duty. After a few short conversations, I walked over to the side where pictures were laid out for all to view of the many people of Jonestown. I found Rhonda and Ishi’s pictures, and I stared at them for some time.
It brought back to mind that Rhonda and I had never got into deep discussions on the question, “what if?” For some reason, I felt that maybe if I could speak with her, maybe the outcome would have been different. I would not allow myself to cry, because I did not want to seem as though I was trying to draw attention to myself. I was frustrated with myself as I have never been for some time.
I met a man named Perry, who lived next to the Mertles when they were killed. He asked if I needed a ride back to the BART station. I told him yes, and we headed back. I felt depressed and just no good all the way back to the airport and then even on the plane trip back to Ontario. I kept asking God, wasn’t I supposed to be there?
For the next few weeks, I went over the trip again in my mind, and finally I came up with and after-the-fact solution: why didn’t I just get a taxi cab? I had to admit that I had panicked and lost myself and it. I blew it! In one sense, I want to ask for forgiveness from those whom I let down by not being there. But my commitment in life is that I myself help someone else to see the true love and forgiveness in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and to help someone along the way who may be lost, to help them find themselves again.
(Hue Fortson was the Associate Pastor of Peoples Temple in Los Angeles at the time of the deaths in Guyana. The text of his undelivered prayer is here. Hue is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His previous articles are here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)